Lesson 4 of 11

What is a Right?

From the Unit:


Reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives us the opportunity to examine the rights and responsibilities that people all over the world share and to consider the different perspectives shaped the declaration. The activities below will help students analyze and reflect on those rights and responsibilities, laid out in the UDHR. Students will directly engage the text of the UDHR, and will consider ways to categorize the 30 rights that are included as part of the declaration.

This lesson is part of Facing History and Ourselves' Universal Declaration of Human Rights collection and part of a series of lessons about the declaration. Use this lesson to engage students in a conversation about the UDHR and how it defines our shared rights and responsibilities.



  1. Define Universal Rights

    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights allows us to explore various perspectives on the rights and responsibilities shared by people across the world. In a 1947 survey, the United Nationals Economic and Social Committee (UNESCO) defined a right as:

    . . . condition of living, without which . . . men cannot give the best of themselves as active members of the community because they are deprived of the means to fulfill themselves as human beings.

    How would you define a right? Is the UNESCO definition too broad? Is it too narrow? What might you add to the UNESCO definition? Gather in a small group to brainstorm at least three rights that your group unanimously believes are "universal": that apply to all people from every cultural and political background. Also, consider at least three responsibilities that we all have for each other. How were your ideas similar? How were they different? As an extension, consider the US Bill of Rights or the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. What are the rights they promise to protect? Would they match the UNESCO definition? How do they define a right? Are they "universal"?

  2. Categorizing Human Rights

    Human Rights scholars often break down the 30 articles of the UDHR into different categories. For example, scholars will discuss the difference between "old rights" and "new rights." Typically "old rights" are civil and political rights meant to protect individuals from the authority of the state, whereas "new rights" are often economic and social rights that are expected to be granted to individuals by the state. Consider which rights might fit in either of those categories. Closely examine the 30 articles of the UDHR and consider other ways to categorize the rights in the document. In groups, create three to six categories or bins for the rights. One suggestion for organizing these activities is to take a paper copy of the UDHR and cut the rights into individual strips and gather a number of bags or bins. Label each bag/bin with a category, and then put the rights in the bag.

    At the end of the exercise bring the large group together to debrief the activity.

    • What categories did they create?
    • Did ideas converge?
    • Where was there disagreement?
    • Based on this exercise, what do you imagine were some of the points of contention as the document was being negotiated?
  3. Read the UDHR

    Read the UDHR and underline key words or phrases. Which words stand out? Another way to read the document is by creating a "Wordle" image from the document. Wordle creates "word clouds" from documents by giving greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the document. What are the five most used words in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? What does this suggest about the meaning and intention of the document? Are these the words you would have predicted?

    Another way to demonstrate understanding of the key ideas embedded in the UDHR is to create a found poem using key words or phrases from the document. Using the Wordle image, take significant words and phrases and combine and repeat them in creative ways to construct a poem about human rights.

    A different way to talk about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is to have a silent conversation about the text using the Big Paper teaching strategy. Post the text of the document to a large piece of chart paper and while reading it in groups, interact and react to the text by writing on the document or in the margins of the chart paper. Respond to others in writing and begin a conversation and interaction with one another, focusing on the text and the written responses.


Lesson 1 of 11
Justice & Human Rights

Examining the Immediate Historical Context

Through a timeline activity, students learn how World War II and the Holocaust shaped the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Lesson 2 of 11
Justice & Human Rights

Universe of Obligation

To prepare for a deep study of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, students explore the idea of the “the universe of obligation.”

Lesson 3 of 11
Justice & Human Rights

A Negotiated Document

By comparing multiple versions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, students gain insight into the motives of those who crafted it.

Lesson 4 of 11
Justice & Human Rights

What is a Right?

Through a close reading of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, students analyze the rights and responsibilities the document lays out for people around the world.

Lesson 5 of 11
Justice & Human Rights

Fulfilling the Dream

Students explore the challenges and logistics of enforcing the articles of Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Lesson 6 of 11
Justice & Human Rights

Legacy, Judgment, and Memory

Students consider the legacies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the world today and discuss how they think its success should be measured.

Lesson 7 of 11
Justice & Human Rights

Universal Rights

Students question whether the rights laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are truly universal, and how time, geography, language, and culture impact this.

Lesson 8 of 11
Justice & Human Rights

Human Rights and Educating Global Citizens

Students question how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights impacts the way they see themselves as citizens of the global community.

Lesson 9 of 11
Justice & Human Rights

Teaching Youth the Values of the UDHR

Students challenge their comprehension of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by rewriting the document for a younger audience.

Lesson 10 of 11
Justice & Human Rights

Creating a Better World

Students devise a creative way to present their plan for pursuing the dream of universal human rights today.

Lesson 11 of 11

A World Made New: Human Rights After the Holocaust

Students explore the historical basis for the modern human rights movement by examining the codes of ancient societies.

Search Our Global Collection

Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.